A quick response and favorable weather conditions allowed firefighters to douse an intense fire along the grass-covered slopes of Figueroa Mountain that began about 3:30 p.m. The fire started just outside Los Padres National Forest land near the entry road that leads down to a secluded property known as the Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse.
A witness to the fire who lives just above the Farmhouse, Ken O’Keefe, who was one of the first on the scene, said it started when one of the guests who was heading down to the lower property for a wedding attempted to turn right onto the narrow dirt road and slid off the side into the grass. Unable to back up in the loose soil, the driver attempted to diagonal sideways through the grass and back up to the road. He then tried to head farther downhill to find an escape route when the catalytic converter on the car caught the grass on fire.
Within minutes, the fire expanded outward through the grass, burning an estimated one acre before a water-dropping helicopter and a Los Padres forest engine crew were able to contain it. By that time, the car was fully involved in flames, and at one point there was a huge explosion, more than likely caused when the gas tank ruptured. CHP officers on the scene arrested the driver after he failed a field sobriety test and was taken away in handcuffs.
While the LP and a number of other engine crews cooled the charred grass down and allowed the car fire to burn out, numerous guests on their way down to the Farmhouse for a wedding were forced to wait for an hour and a half along Figueroa Mountain Road until the road was cleared.
The Farmhouse has been the subject of numerous complaints regarding the weddings and other events that are held on the property. O’Keefe noted that it is within an extremely high fire-hazard area and is identified as such on Cal Fire high-fire-risk-area maps, and yet there are as many as 25-30 events in the period from May to October with from 50 to 250 in attendance when fire danger is at its highest.
Criticism of events like those held at the Figueroa Mountain property have been mounting, especially since a large wedding event for Kim Kardashian was held in Montecito, leading to the Board of Supervisors to weigh in. A proposed “Good Neighbor Ordinance” is under discussion, though any decisions regarding it have been tabled for now.
Currently, though a special-events permit is required for commercial events such as a wedding, there is an apparent loophole in the ordinance to rent out homes as residential properties and leave it up to the tenant to do what they want. At the Farmhouse website set up for those who want to book the property, the site notes the following: “Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse is rented as a residential property. We can suggest many ways to enjoy your stay at the Farmhouse and surrounding areas, but we do not provide any commercial services.”
Ken Switzer, an agent for Prudential Realty and owner of the Farmhouse, calls the complaints about parties at the Farmhouse overblown and exaggerated.
Not so, says O’Keefe. “In a typical summer week, we’ll hear the large trucks heading past our house down to begin setting up for the weekend event beginning on Thursday,” he says. “They’ll be bringing in dumpsters, party rental stuff, generators, and the like. Friday we’ll typically see caterers arriving, lighting contractors, band rehearsals, and lots of loud music. Then Saturday when the event takes place we’ll have as many as 100 vehicles, buses, amplified music, and the party noise to deal with. Then Sunday and Monday everything is reversed as they close things down.” O’Keefe has put his complaints online at Photobucket for those who’d like to know more about them along with a number of pictures of the fire.
While the fire turned out to be a relatively minor event, that might not have been the case in hotter weather or with windy conditions more like what occurred on July 4, 2007, when a grinder cutting a metal pipe sparked the Zaca Fire not too far from this one. “If the winds had been blowing, this could have been a much bigger fire,” one of the fire crew said to me while he mopped things down.
Perhaps it is time for the politicians to take events like these in high-fire-risk areas a lot more seriously, if for no other reason than to allow county and federal fire officials to weigh in on requirements for them when they are held in locations like the Figueroa Mountain Farmhouse.